L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti ventured to South L.A. on Monday to unveil the city's first ever “smart” bench. The bench, called a “Soofa,” comes with two USB ports, which are powered by a solar panel.
This version of the bench isn't that “smart.” It does not store, collect or dispense information. All it does is charge a phone. So if your battery is running low, and you happen to be in the vicinity of Central Avenue and 43rd Street, and you have your power cord, plus some time to kill, you can now stop by and charge up.
Sandra Richter, the CEO of Soofa, was on hand for the inaugural demonstration. In an interview, she said the bench shows that L.A. “is committed to smart city technology.”
“We're seeing where we can push boundaries,” she said. “City officials want data. They want stories. They want to show they're closing the digital divide.”
The city is paying $3,800 apiece for these smart benches, which is about $2,000 more than it pays for dumb benches. Garcetti's office plans to roll them out at 14 other locations over the next nine months, as part of the mayor's Great Streets initiative. That works out to one smart bench per council district, apparently because council members think it's unfair if a colleague gets a new toy and they don't. If city officials decide to buy more benches, look for them to do it in multiples of 15.
Time will tell how useful the benches will be. A lot depends on location. The first one is at an unremarkable street corner next to a strip mall — not the kind of place you would be likely to linger to charge your phone. The bench is also out in the sun, because of course it needs sunlight to work. Richter said that, in other cities, the benches have gotten a lot of use in places where people might hang out anyway, such as plazas or basketball courts.
For now, the benches are little more than glorified power outlets. But Soofa has plans for new features, including installing sensors that can tell the weather or measure pedestrian traffic. Perhaps such data could be useful to the government or to advertisers. In the meantime, the benches serve as a relatively modest way to advertise the city's commitment to new technology.
While he was walking to the Soofa for a photo-op, Garcetti had a brief, unscripted encounter with an older African-American gentleman who happened to be walking by. The man, who said his name is Clay Pippen, shook Garcetti's hand and asked him, “Why haven't you gotten rid of the Mexicans?” Garcetti smiled and said something to the effect that everyone is welcome in L.A., and moved on.
Pippen, who smelled of alcohol, continued to complain about Mexicans, about the broken elevators at the nearby Dunbar Hotel, and about Garcetti. “He can kiss my ass,” Pippen said.
Garcetti's press staff attempted to intervene and redirect attention to the Soofa. Later, Garcetti himself pointed out that he had two more friendly interactions with constituents while this reporter was collecting Pippen's name.